The author of the article below, Debra Cagan, is a former official in both the Department of State and the Department of Defense, currently distinguished fellow at the Transatlantic Leadership Network and a member of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation's Friends of Ukraine Network.
Team Biden is sacrificing Ukraine for Russian and Iranian oil
By Debra Cagan
March 7, 2022 7:34pm
President Biden failed to address Russian oil imports to the United States before Russia invaded Ukraine
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images
It should not have been a difficult decision for the Biden administration: Hammer Russian President Vladimir Putin into economic oblivion or hedge its bets with thousands of Ukrainian lives on the line and hope Russian fossils can fix soaring fuel prices.
Unfortunately for those bearing the brunt of Putin’s murderous rampage, Team Biden failed to act on the economic engine powering his ambitions before he escalated into a devastating war.
The time to shut off Russia’s fossil lifeline has long passed.
After years of accounting for under 0.5% of annual US imports of oil and refined products, Russia steadily increased its share over the last decade, reaching a high of 7%-plus, surpassing Saudi Arabia as the third-largest exporter to America.
The United States has been importing about 18 million barrels of Russian oil per month, filling the void created by 2019’s Venezuela sanctions. Russian petroleum is a good substitute for Venezuelan crude, and Russia likely undercut other potential suppliers.
This might seem insignificant on its face. But fossil and related hydrocarbon exports account for about 45% to 50% of Russian GDP. One has to ask: If the Europeans who import significantly higher percentages of Russian hydrocarbons can agree to serious cuts, why is America still helping to underwrite Russian military wars and global adventurism?
Replacing Russian oil with other sources would have been relatively easy even a few months ago. Now the United States is left playing dictator poker with countries that should never have been part of this equation.
How did we get here? Multiple US administrations have used varying levels of punishment against other nations. Some are singled out for permanent opprobrium, and others, guilty of far more egregious crimes against humanity, barely receive a slap on the wrist. Russia, a longtime purveyor of death and destruction using outlawed weapons to maximize pain and suffering, was in the wrist-slap club.
Venezuela, run by a man using oil resources to starve and torture his own compatriots, received maximalist pain through sanctions in 2019. Nicolás Maduro then turned to that unholy trio of Russia, China and Iran, countries to whose crimes Maduro’s often pale in comparison, to rescue his oil empire.
Then there is Iran. Regardless of its sins — the mass killing of Syrian civilians, the destruction of Lebanon through its emissary Hezbollah, turning Yemen into a bloodbath to prove a point, a human-rights record that defies description — Iran has always managed to extort its way back into the good graces of those foolish enough to believe Tehran’s latest tale.
Team Biden is working feverishly in Vienna to cut a deal with Iran and its critical enabler Russia. It is also scrambling to put officials on the ground in Caracas to tell Maduro all is forgiven if he forsakes Russia and resumes selling America his oil, which it will gladly resume buying.
A cynic may notice a theme: partnering with dictators to crush an even worse dictator — without whom, coincidentally, Iran and Venezuela would have been far less potent in the first place.
In a few days, those involved in this farce of a negotiation in Vienna would like to announce a deal with Iran. Russia will likely be the guarantor because Iran already has highly enriched uranium, or HEU. It’s not too far-fetched to speculate that a key component of the deal will be Russia’s commitment to ensure it holds or monitors Iran’s HEU. Negotiators may even announce a face-saving agreement that has Russia converting that HEU to low-enriched uranium for commercial reactors.
People protesting the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Washington, DC on February 26, 2022.
Minimal or no US or Western role in monitoring that HEU is likely, just the good word and hollow promises of Russia and Iran. Not surprisingly, in another last-minute gambit, Russia is looking for sanctions relief and guarantees as part of the deal.
Part two of this deal is removing sanctions on Iran, followed soon after by a flood of Iranian oil and gas on the world market, essential for a country craving hard currency. A basic law of economics holds that the more oil on the market, the lower the prices; the Biden administration is wagering that Iranian and Venezuelan oil will lead to less pain at the pump.
This is why Team Biden did not move immediately to halt the import of Russian crude: the Iran deal and an economically dubious premise on the effect a US cutoff would have on oil markets. And it’s why it responded with handwringing to every Ukrainian request until the bombs dropped.
Lest anyone raise the specter of climate change and the need to speed up the transition from fossil, the deals in play suggest that, miraculously, climate change only happens in the skies above the United States and no place else.
Debra Cagan is distinguished fellow at the Transatlantic Leadership Network and a former State and Defense Department official.